With Herman Cain out of the race for the GOP presidential nomination, the rush to win his supporters is heating up.
In fact, those supporters — with their Tea Party beliefs and fervor — could be the deciding factor in the race.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is the early favorite to win Cain’s backing, while Palin’s choice is less clear, but potentially more important.
Cain left the race with a tarnished reputation that could suffer even more damage as new details of sexual allegations trickle in. Palin’s reputation, however, is still sterling to this band of voters. That makes her a huge get for any candidate.
But the Tea Party favorite faces an interesting dilemma: Should she compromise some of her political purity to endorse a front-runner for the nomination, thereby proving her relevance and making a mark on the race? Or, should she stick to her principles and endorse someone with unquestioned conservative credentials but little shot at winning?
It’s a difficult either/or, because both of the two front-runners, Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, have significant skeletons in either their political or personal closets. Meanwhile, the candidates who have, by all accounts, the most conservative records don’t have much of a chance of winning.
On an ideological level, Romney’s record clearly doesn’t square with Palin’s. He helped design and implement a healthcare program much like President Obama’s, and conservatives are wary of his stances on such issues as abortion and gay rights.
Further, Palin has often seemed in a shadow war with Romney. On the same day he announced his presidential bid in New Hampshire, she suddenly showed up in the state, unannounced, sucking up all the press in the process.
And, more recently, during the August debt-ceiling debate, she went on Fox News and gave a sardonic “Bless his heart” for Romney’s relative quiet during the crisis.
“Bless his heart, I have respect for Mitt Romney, but I do not have respect for what he has done through this debt-increase debate,” she began.
Then she put her right index finger into the air, as if testing the wind, and said: “He did this. He waited until it was a done deal.”
Political timidity is not and has never been Palin’s thing.
Further, Romney is undoubtedly the establishment candidate of the cycle, and Palin’s disdain for the establishment has guided many of her endorsement decisions.
In 2010, she endorsed the inexperienced upstart Christine O’Donnell in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary, as well as Kentucky outsider Rand Paul in his state’s primary. Both were high-profile outsiders taking on establishment insiders. That’s how Palin herself came to power, and that’s what she likes to see in candidates.
But Gingrich, the other front-runner, has his score of challenges in wooing Palin. One that’s been rarely reported is his criticism of Palin over the years — something the famously sensitive former governor has shown little patience for when others have done it.
In April 2009 — before Palin had even resigned as governor — Gingrich delivered the kind of condescending, back-handed compliment that’s so enraged Palin’s followers over the years.
Gingrich called her a “celebrity in her own right” and said that “to go from there to becoming a national leader would take a significant amount of work.”
“Is she willing to do the kind of development of national issues and development of a national profile that would be required?” he asked.
And earlier this year, Gingrich took another dig at Palin — in something of a glass-house moment — on ABC.
“I think she’s got to slow down and be more careful and think through what she’s saying and how she’s saying it,” the famously rash Gingrich urged.
Further, Palin would take another risk by endorsing the former Speaker.
Right now, Gingrich is trying to portray himself as a Washington outsider, but with a career in D.C. spanning more than three decades, he’s vulnerable to being portrayed as the ultimate insider.
Not only that, but Gingrich has a messy personal life, and has been married three times. Palin might jeopardize her sparkling social credentials by backing someone who was conducting an illicit sexual affair at the same time he was criticizing then-President Bill Clinton during the latter’s impeachment process.
Yet if Palin chooses to pass on both Romney and Gingrich, some say she could back an ideologically pure candidate such as former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).
Last week, she raised eyebrows when she told Fox News’s Sean Hannity: “If voters start kind of shifting gears and deciding they want ideological consistency, then they’re going to start paying attention to, say, Rick Santorum.” She went on to praise his record on abortion, fiscal issues and foreign-policy concerns.
Santorum was so pleased that he sent a letter to supporters, trying to fundraise off Palin’s kind comments.
A Palin endorsement might, no doubt, boost Santorum’s spirit, but it probably wouldn’t be enough to erase a 20 percent to 30 percent deficit in the polls.
In other words, Palin wouldn’t be much of a difference-maker if she endorsed Santorum. She could, however, have a profound effect on the race by backing either Gingrich or Romney.
One indication that Palin might be leaning toward the option of backing a front-runner comes from an interview last week with Fox News.
“I think my personal endorsement probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans today, at this point in the race,” she said, before slyly adding: “Maybe as the weeks progress, it would become a little bit more significant.”
In other words, she plans on making an impact.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill.